You see I have a perennial problem. Each of us Angels has his own very specific job to do, and my brief as the Christmas Angel often leads me to trespass into territory that I don't have strict day-to-day jurisdiction over. But what can I say? I'm an enthusiast, and when I'm in the throes of getting things done it's not in my nature to come over all nit-picky about whether what needs to be done is strictly my department or not.
Even on the very first nativity I ended up getting it in the neck for messing about with the heavens, but if I hadn't sent that star who knows where the so-called Wise Men would have ended up. For crying out loud they'd already missed the main event! But that didn't stop the Boss from reading me the riot act because I'd not consulted Mazalel, the great big dreamer who's in charge of stars and celestial bodies.
And time is never on my side. It's not like I can let things slip. There's a deadline, and if I miss it, well Christmas just won't happen. And let's face it, in any given year, that would be a catastrophe. The mortals down below need a little injection of seasonal cheer to keep the light of their humanity burning, and, in the dark year that was 1914, they needed it more than ever.
When the war broke out back in August I knew it was going to mess up my plans. Wars always do. Light and fun and all the things that make you believe humanity can be redeemed go right out of the window.
And then, to add to my woes, that infernal bighead, Azrael, the Angel of Death, started to lord it over the rest of us as though he were the only one who had a job to do.
Death. Death. And more death. It's going to be death on an industrial scale, he'd told us self-importantly when it had started. Do you dolts have any idea how much work I'm going to have on whilst this little shindig plays out?
No, of course we hadn't. Not even us eternal beings, who've seen everything since before the beginning of time, could have imagined how awful it was going to be.
It'll all be over by Christmas, the Tommies said as they joined up and flooded across the Channel to rot in the trenches, but I knew it wouldn't. I'd seen the Plan in the Big Book up on the Executive Floor when I'd been handing in my time-sheets. The Plan sounded pretty terrible, but it was only words on paper and I hadn't had the vision to see how the blood would flow when those words played out for real.
I began to think that maybe, just maybe, Christmas 1914 would be business as usual for me. But then things changed, and the carnage began in earnest. We watched in disbelief. Mary, the Queen of Heaven, took it very badly. She always mourns the suffering of men. I think it comes from having seen her own Son die that terrible death all those years' ago.
Hail Holy Mother, I said, with my eyes lowered in reverence.
My child, you are troubled, she said.
Well, there was no denying that my heart was heavy. I allowed myself to look up, and saw all my pain mirrored in her gentle eyes. She looked at me for a moment, exploring the secret recesses of my heart with her all-seeing gaze.
You're right, Nazariah. We must do something about this terrible war, she said, reading my thoughts without my having to articulate them.
But it's written in the Plan, I said. We can't interfere with the Plan.
She paused for a moment to reflect, her kind face creased with concern for the sons of men.
The Queen of Heaven looked tired. I knew that she'd been working the nightshift with Azrael. You see, down there on the battlefield, they always launch their attacks in the dark of night. That's when most of them die, and the Holy Virgin flies low over that terrible place with the Angel of Death to soften the blow. Before their mortal remains fall to the ground she gathers their souls in her arms and gently carries them home, clutching them to her breast. No human mother could care for them more tenderly at the hour of their passing than the Holy Virgin of Heaven.
Azrael, the old grump, feels a bit usurped, but even he knows better than to complain to the Management.
Maybe we can do something to remind them of their humanity without changing the Plan, she said, the hint of a smile spreading across her face.
And that was how it all began. Before long she'd come up with a plan, although she insisted that it was our plan.
Our strategy was very simple. We had to find something that would remind the men on the ground of all that was pure and happy in their world below, and of how it could be a better place. If we could just keep their belief in goodness alive, we knew that, little by little, right would prevail and the light would once again conquer the darkness.
As the Christmas Angel, you are central to our strategy, she said. I blinked in the pure, white light of her Holiness, and went weak at the knees with the honour of it all. All mortals love Christmas and you must spread a little of your Christmas magic over the world below. Believe me, Nazariah, they want to feel your presence. A little nugget of hope buried deep in each man's heart wants to remember the Holy Birth.
Now I have to 'fess up. I was far from convinced. Down below I could see them blowing the living daylights out of each other. I was a long way from believing that the odd twinkly light and a Christmas Carol or two would save the day, but the Holy Virgin was depending on me, and I wasn't about to let her down.
The first thing that I had to do that Christmas Eve was to place a few pine saplings in the way of the Saxon infantrymen. A tiny spark ignited in their hearts and with the addition of a few, small candles each sapling was soon transformed into a Tannenbaum, a glorious German Christmas tree.
And when the others saw them they couldn't help themselves:
O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum,
wie treu sind deine Blätter!
Du grünst nicht nur zur
Nein auch im Winter, wenn es schneit
O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum,
wie treu sind deine Blätter!
Their voices rose, deep and hearty, from the bowels of the earth where they were sheltering in their trenches.
And then an amazing thing happened. The Tommies picked up the melody, carried to them on the breath of the wind, across No Man's Land.
They stopped for a moment, ignoring their orders to fire, and listened to the joy in the German voices. It resonated with something, a memory buried deep in each man's soul, where they had kept it safe from the horrors of war. Maybe the Queen of Heaven herself stood by their sides, encouraging them to think happy thoughts of their mothers and sweethearts back across the sea. Whatever the way of it the Tommies paused, and then, before any further orders could come down the line, they answered their enemies in song:
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree,
How loyal are your needles,
You're green not only in the summertime,
No, also in winter when it snows,
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree,
How loyal are your needles.
The Germans in the opposite trenches were delighted.
Gerhard, a sandy-haired boy of nineteen from Leipzig, who was marked down in the Plan as a survivor, reached along the floor of the German trench. Slowly, carefully, hardly daring to breathe, he lifted the Christmas tree that one of his comrades had brought forward from the rear that morning when they'd been posted to the front line. Slowly, slowly he balanced it on the parapet of the trench. It was a dangerous manoeuvre. The enemy snipers must have been able to guess exactly where he was. Gerhard hesitated for a moment as he'd steadied it in plain sight of the enemy, wondering whether the Tommies would try and blow his head off, but they didn't. Exhaling with relief and exhilaration he slumped back down to the safety of the floor again.
The other men in the trench gazed up at the little Christmas tree in amazement. With its twinkling candles and the little thread of ribbon from someone's Liebchen that they'd woven through its branches it looked more beautiful than anything they could remember.
After a moment of introspection Gerhard and his comrades registered that their enemies hadn't tried to destroy it. In fact no one was shooting at anything - or anyone - any more.
If you don't shoot, Tommy, we don't shoot, he shouted into the cold night air.
The stars twinkled overhead, and Gerhard gazed up into the night sky hoping and praying that his enemies would agree not to shoot and that they might all escape the horrors of war, even if it was only for one night.
It seemed like an eternity before the reply came chorussing back on the breeze.
OK, Fritz. We don't shoot, you don't shoot. Happy Christmas!
The others in his trench didn't understand. He was the only one who spoke English, but when he'd explained what the Tommies had said, a hearty cheer rose from the German trench, followed by a spontaneous chorus.
Stille nacht, heilige nacht
And before the Germans had reached the second line the Tommies were singing as though their lives depended on it:
Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin, mother and child
Holy infant, tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.
For one night it seemed as though we had worked a miracle, the Queen of Heaven and I. For one night we had stopped the war with nothing more than a few saplings, a couple of carols and the memories of Christmases past.
Of course, once they realised what we'd done the Boss and the Senior Management went ballistic. They said nothing to the Queen of Heaven. She was above reproach, but I got it in the neck for meddling with the course of human history. They told me that this was the purview of wiser and better minds than mine, and that I really ought to just mind my own business.
I listened to them. I said nothing in my defence. What I'd done was way above my pay-grade. But in the end, when all the fuss was over, the one thing no one could deny was that, even in the darkest, and bleakest of times, the true spirit of Christmas had endured. So do me a favour: don't listen to the killjoys when they tell you that Christmas has lost its magic. That's nonsense. It's the most wonderful time of the year.
All the best for a very happy Christmas,